Elon Musk to the rescue?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk in March 2020.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk in March 2020.
Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock
Tesla CEO Elon Musk in March 2020.

Elon Musk to the rescue?

The Tesla CEO said he could produce ventilators to help fill a nationwide shortage. Will he actually follow through?
March 19, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented demand for ventilators, which can help keep critically ill patients alive by helping them breathe. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have been warning that hospitals in New York could soon be facing a shortage of ventilators, but if Elon Musk’s tweets are to be trusted – and that’s a big if – the entrepreneur and billionaire could come to the rescue.

Musk – the CEO of the aerospace manufacturer SpaceX and the electric vehicle company Tesla – tweeted late Wednesday night that his companies would start producing ventilators if hospitals did in fact experience a shortage, later explaining that his companies would be fit to the task because SpaceX makes spacecraft with life support systems and Tesla makes cars with “sophisticated” heating and cooling systems, before asking which hospitals were in need.

And that’s where de Blasio joined the Twitter thread. The New York City mayor jumped at the opportunity, tweeting at Musk on Thursday morning: “New York City is buying! Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP – we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We’re getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!”

The Twitter exchange between Musk and de Blasio is heartening, especially as reports circulate that the U.S. will soon not only have to contend with limited hospital beds and health care personnel, but also a shortage of the very supplies that keep patients breathing. Ventilators can be too expensive for hospitals to buy – especially if there won’t be much use for them after the coronavirus crisis is over. One possible solution could be for the local, state or the federal government to step in and purchase the machines for hospitals. Representatives for neither Tesla nor SpaceX responded to requests for comment about whether they would actually produce ventilators and whether their existing operations would be able to do so. Spokespeople for de Blasio also did not respond to a request for comment on de Blasio’s tweets to Musk.

But Musk has sometimes been accused of bucking the traditional restrained social media presence of most tech CEOs, and instead shooting from the hip on Twitter. His tweets have on occasion landed him in hot water, including the last time he volunteered to help during a time of crisis. In 2018, when a young Thai soccer team became trapped in a cave, Musk tweeted that he would be happy to help with the rescue efforts if there was a way for him to do so. He later said he was sending engineers to Thailand to help, and even came up with an idea to use a “kid-sized submarine” for the rescue. The submarine method was never used, and while Musk cheered the rescue effort, he shot back on Twitter at criticism of his efforts from one of the divers involved in the rescue. A British diver called Musk’s submarine a “PR stunt,” and Musk replied by inexplicably accusing the diver of being a pedophile, calling him a “pedo guy.”

That tweet and the fallout eventually ended up with Musk apologizing and winning a defamation suit that had been filed against him.

On another occasion, Musk’s tweets cost him $20 million. In August 2018, Musk tweeted that he had secured funding to take Tesla private at $420 a share, sending stocks soaring. Musk then said the deal wouldn’t happen, stocks plunged, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued Musk, alleging that his statements were deceptive. When it was all over, Musk agreed to pay a $20 million fine and step down as Tesla’s board chairman for three years.

Of course, this time could be different. Musk could come through and provide ventilators to hospitals in need. Musk isn’t the only CEO stepping up, and the federal government may choose to direct industrial production of necessary supplies like ventilators after invoking the Defense Production Act.

New York City – like other parts of the country experiencing particularly severe outbreaks of the coronavirus – will likely need all the help it can get in ensuring its hospitals have enough resources to combat the pandemic. As of Thursday afternoon, New York City reported 3,615 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the city.

But Musk’s offer to help represents a slight change of position on the pandemic, as he suggested just weeks ago that the situation was being blown out of proportion. “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” Musk tweeted on March 6. Even so, New York seems to have taken a liking to the entrepreneur. Cuomo, for one, consulted with Musk when coming up with a new solution to avoid a full shutdown of the L train subway tunnel last year. And then there’s Tesla’s solar panel factory in Buffalo, which hasn’t been without its own issues.

Here’s hoping that when New York needs assistance this time around, Musk and his innovative companies come through. Later on Thursday afternoon, Musk replied to de Blasio on Twitter: “Sounds good, we will connect with your team to understand potential needs.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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